SGU Episode 338

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SGU Episode 338
7th January 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

Galilleo moons.jpg
SGU 337 SGU 339
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Martin Rundkvist
Quote of the Week
Education has failed in a very serious way to convey the most important lesson science can teach: skepticism.
David Suzuki
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday January 4th 2012 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Welcome to two thousand twelve.

S: Welcome to the...

R: You mean twenty twelve.

S: Twenty twelve everybody.

J: Twenty twelve everybody.

B: (laughs)

R: You guys have to make the switch.

E: No. Two naught one two...


S: The last year of existence.

E: That's it!

R: Yeah.

S: The world ends this year.

R: It's going to be a short one.

S: Yeah.

B: Make it a good one!

E: Yep.

J: Well, not, Rebecca it's supposed to happen in December, it's not going to be that short.

R: It's going to be nine days short, ten days short.

E: Twelve, twelve, twelve.

R: Is it the 21st I think?

E: Yeah, 21st is the-

S: Well, some people do 12-12-12 some do 12-12-21. You know, whatever. So this is a new year and we do like to tweak the format of the show a little bit with each new year, experiment with a few new segments.

J: I want a quickie with Bob!

S: yeah, so that's...


B: yeaaaah.

S: of the segments.

E: You can have mine too.

S: Is uh...

R: Calm yourself, Jay.

J: I can't help it, I'm so excited.

S: called a 'Quickie with Bob' where, at any point during the show, any one can shout out that they want a quickie with Bob and Bob will give us a very brief and not a brief for Bob, but a really brief description of a news item, a science news item with a provocative headline.

R: What's the cap? It's going to be like 30 seconds, right?

S: Or a minute, I was thinking one minute.

R: A minute, OK. Yeah, that's fine. I'll allow it.

E: You can call it out at any time during the course of the show? Or it happens only once?

S: But only once.

E: Once, right. Yeah.

S: Right, so don't abuse the privilege. Jay was just demonstrating for us, that one won't count.

J: Steve, can people do this at live SGU shows?

S: Well, we'll see, we'll talk about it, we have to see how it goes, we're giving it a try. And another change is that Rebecca, you are taking over This Day in Skepticism segment. So... start us off.

R: I am, I am honored that Evan has given me this great responsibility, he did a fantastic job over the last year with This Day in Skeptic History.

E: Thanks Rebecca. So thankyou...

S: Which Evan made up the segment himself, he just kind of did it and it evolved into a full segment.

R: It's a lot of pressure for me to carry on that torch.

E: Take care of my baby, Rebecca.

R: I'll do my best, Evan.

E: I know you will.

R: So... uh, for today...

J: I want a quickie with Bob!


S: Jay!

R: Jay, calm yourself!

E: You can't help it. You see, this is going to happen every week.

R: Oh, this is a terrible mistake.

E: That's the problem with this.

J: You know what, in like three weeks we're totally going to forget to do it, Bob will be like, nobody wants a quickie with me?

B: (laughs)

E: Can we say that if one person does it they can't do it the next week? Can we have that sort of as a rule?

B: I like that rule.

S: You can't do it two weeks in a row?

R: That's probably a good rule, yeah.

E: You can't call it two weeks in a row.

S: OK.

This Day in Skepticism (3:01)[edit]

R: All right! So this day in history.

E: Yep.

R: This is a very interesting day, was a very interesting day for one Galileo. Maybe you've heard of him. Through much of December of 1609, Galileo observed the Moon through the telescope that he had created and perfected that year. On January 7th of 1610, he wrote a letter describing what he had seen, which is that the Moon, and I quote,

is most evidently not at all of an even, smooth and regular surface, as a great many people believe of it and of the other heavenly bodies, but on the contrary it is rough and unequal. In short it is shown to be such that sane reasoning cannot conclude otherwise than that it is full of prominences and cavities similar, but much larger, to the mountains and valleys spread over Earth's surface.

R: However, that was not the only Moon news that Galileo broke on January 7th of 1610. That same day he used his telescope to observe Jupiter and he found what he called, and I quote: "three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness". He observed those stars for several nights, eventually realizing that there were actually four of them, and he watched them move and disappear behind Jupiter. This led him to believe that they were actually not stars, but moons orbiting Jupiter, which we now call the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Now this was huge news because these were the first moons discovered after our own Moon, and obviously that caused a huge uproar because every body was like, well if those are moons, then what are we supposed to call our moon? And Galileo was like, I don't care, look the point is that these are celestial bodies orbiting another celestial body which is pretty definitive evidence that everything doesn't orbit Earth, and everyone was like, but what are we supposed to call our moon? So Galileo was like, I don't know, the Moon? But nobody was happy with that because it's frankly confusing to use a definite article to distinguish a moon from the Moon so the inquisition had him placed under house arrest.

S: Yes.

R: That's this day in history.

S: Those were two very heretical observations that Galileo made. As you said, it was the belief at the time that the Earth, that the very laws of nature set into motion by God, everything had to revolve about the Earth. So the notion that something revolved about something other than the Earth was heresy. Second, there was supposed to be a very clear difference between the corrupt physical things on the earth and the perfect heavenly things in the sky. The fact that there were blemishes, mountains and imperfections on the surface of the moon was also equally heretical. So those were the two things that got him in hot water with the church.

R: Also when he metaphorically referred to the pope as a simpleton in his book. But, you know.

S: Yeah, Simplicio.

J: Simplicio?

S: He had a fake conversation, one representing the scientific point of view, one representing sort of the superstitious, primitive point of view, named Simplicio. And somebody, I can't remember the names of the other characters. I actually read the book 20 years ago, it was very interesting. It was an interesting way for him to explain the science, as a conversation between essentially a scientist and an average person and a pseudo-scientist, you know a superstitious person.[1]

R: Yeah.

E: It sounds like sort of a Greek classic way of posing an argument.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah, it's almost like a Socratic dialogue.

S: Yeah, very nice.

E: Very cool.

S: All right, thanks Rebecca.

E: Great job, Rebecca.

R: Thanks, Evan

News Items[edit]

Psychic Predictions 2011 (6:44)[edit]

S: So this is our first episode of two thousand and twelve and as is tradition on the SGU, we review the predictions, psychic predictions, specifically, that were made for two thousand and eleven, to see how the psychics did.

J: This is from Psychic Nikkie. The Playboy mansion will burn down.

S: Yeah. (laughs)

J: That did not happen.

R: She meant figuratively, with gonorrhoea.

J: Yeah, OK. This is absolutely the most ridiculous prediction. A gold rush will occur in Hawaii.

S: Mmhmm.

R: What?

J: Yeah.

B: Oh, what.

E: Uum, well.

R: Is it 1890?

J: But if you think about it, a gold rush will occur in Hawaii. A gold rush. Now aren't those islands made from volcanoes?

S: Yes.

E: They sure are.

R: They are, yeah.

J: So there isn't a lot of old enough material there where gold would be infused in it, am I correct in thinking this?

S: All right, so volcanoes can actually spew forth gold and other valuable minerals, although I don't think that Hawaii is a volcanic system that is spewing forth any valuable minerals. And also, gold mines can result from old volcanoes where the gold has had time to concentrate into a lode through various processes such as erosion. In a new volcanic system like the Hawaiian islands, if it were spewing gold, which I don't think it is, it would be diffuse in the volcanic ash or the soil. So not really a good location for a gold rush.

R: She meant it figuratively!


E: Right, it's a metaphor for... uh.

R: For pawn shops ... er ... getting a lot of gold.

J: Oh wait, I'm sorry, psychic Nikki even came up with another one that's even dumber than the gold rush in Hawaii. It's the first brain transplant will take place!

S: (laughs)! Brain transplant!


B: Oh my god.

E: Brain and brain, what is brain?

B: Come on, Spock won't be born for centuries.

E: Spock's brain.

R: Brain transplant...

J: I mean, really!

S: And anyway, it shouldn't be called a brain transplant, it should be called a body transplant.

R: A body transplant, yeah.

E: Well maybe some scientist took some ganglia out of a worm or something and put it in another worm. Maybe it did happen at some level.

S: No.

R: Yeah, that's what she meant.

J: You know, Evan I actually did think of that angle, like maybe some super-basic yeah, but like of course she's talking about humans, right? I mean come on she's not talking about a tape worm here.

R: Let's just give psychic Nikki the benefit of the doubt, that's what Evan's saying.

J: OK, Monty the psychic.

E: Monty.

J: Monty probably is a guy. Monty said a device to allow people to levitate will be built where you can walk on a platform and levitate.

R: That's kind of close, there was that crazy levitation thing that was made a few months ago. It wasn't, I don't think they got around to levitating a person on it but they could levitate objects in an impressive manner.

J: Yeah but this, not a platform like...

R: No but I'm going to give them a half a point.

J: I don't give them shit.

R: I'm just playing psychics' advocate here.

B: (chuckles)

J: Yeah, the U.S. military will sabotage President Obama's administration by leaking damaging information on him to the public.

R: That happened when we discovered that Barak Obama was teleported to Mars.

E: Yep.

S: Mmhmm.

R: (laughs)

E: Part of a CIA secret project.

E: Oh, and back.

J: There you go, and they were using a levitation platform when they did it.

R: Yeah.

E: maybe. That's a secret.

R: But that happened, you can google that.

J: So then, I remember Steve mentioning the psychic twins so I looked them up and, I don't know, it was almost like I had an accident on my computer over here it was so insane what I found, so check this out. All right, so the psychic twins Terry and Linda Jamieson, and I watched an interview with them on the View that was recorded July 8th 2011 to huck their new psychic intelligence book, OK. Did you know that they claim they connect telepathically and they share a soul.

S: Mmhmm.

J: And that they were psychic in the womb.

S: Yup, there you go.

J: They call that twintuition.

R: Mmhmm.

J: They say that they have a bifurcated soul.

R: That makes sense.

J: Yup.

R: It just works.

J: And they say that they have clairvoyance, claircognisance, clairsentience and clairaudience.

E: Claire Danes.


J: Wow, that was good. So from their book, they claim that you may think that because we are identical twins and share the same DNA we're naturally more telepathic than most. And in fact we do have twin telepathic experiences on a daily basis. We don't need Blackberries or iPhones to communicate with each other. We use twinberry, mental telepathy.

R: Yeah I mean surely if they can communicate every day in the same manner that one would use a phone for, that's something that is quite easily testable.

S: Mmhmm.

J: So a few more interesting facts about the twins is that they claim that they worked for the Pentagon for project foresight. They claim to have predicted all of the attacks since their supposed initial predictions of 9-11 back in early 1999 while they were on Art Bell's Coast to Coast AM Premier Radio. They said that they never use their powers for personal gain because, why? Any guesses?

R: Because that would corrupt it?

E: Bad karma?

J: Right, they'll lose their gift. So that's their excuse, and actually that's the best excuse I've ever heard. Is nope, we can't do it because the way that it works, we'll lose our gift.

R: But I think the JREF has heard that a lot and that's why they offer to donate the money to charity.

S: Yes.

R: Your hands will never be sullied by the filthy skeptical money.

J: So while watching the segment of the View, Whoopie totally buys their BS and was making ridiculous statements like twins can sense each other and know things like when one breaks a limb. Thank you Whoopie Goldberg, you're awesome. They go on to give the show a prediction for the fall of 2011 - because keep in mind this was a recording that was earlier in the summer - hurricane hits the East Coast.

S: Kinda happened, it turned into a tropical storm before it hit us.

J: Yeah but Steve, what a stretch, a hurricane hits the East Coast.

E: Yeah, right?

R: Mmhmm.

J: And then they go on to read Whoopie's past lives and they told her she was a nun.

S: No, that was the movie.


E: Yeah, that was the movie! Duh!

R: She was also a cop fighting crime with a dinosaur.

E: And a bartender on a space ship.


J: And then I collected a list of things that were not predicted at all.

S: Yes, that's always fun, do the flip side.

J: And OK, so let's see:

  • Japan earthquake and tsunami and the associated nuclear crisis
  • Bin Laden's death
  • Tucson, Arizona shooting rampage
  • The death of Amy Winehouse
  • Occupy Wall Street
  • Kim Jong Il's death... he was very ill
  • Pen State abuse scandal - that was a good one
  • Steve Jobs' death - that's another huge one.

None of these were predicted.

S: Mmhmm. That about covers it. Do you guys remember your own predictions that you made at the beginning of 2011? (see episode 296)

E: One prediction only, which was very plausible, I thought at least at the time. In that, the United States Government, the Obama Administration would have a change of heart and decide to continue the Space Shuttle program through the end of the year.

R: Ouch.

S: Wah wah waaah.

E: Well, you know there was a little glimmer of hope though, in which they well, when one of the last shuttle launches got delayed, I'm like all right, well that kind of helps push my prediction along a little bit. Maybe that's the nudge it needs, the stone that, you know at the top of the hill and it rolls and...

S: Yeah, the snow.

E: ...collects the snow on the way down and becomes a big snowball effect, but no.

S: I made three predictions. One prediction was an exoplanet roughly the size of earth with the possibility of water on the surface will be discovered.

E: Ding!

S: That's not true, but exoplanets roughly the size of Earth have been discovered, and an exoplanet with the possibility of liquid water on the surface have been discovered, but they're not the same planet. But we haven't found one planet with both of those things at the same time. So we got close, it was sort of really all around it, but I'm going to repeat that prediction for next year.

R: You're already one up on psychic Nikki.

E: I have four new predictions for this year.

S: I also predicted that the SETI institute has received the best candidate to date, one that will remain viable and will need to be examined with more sensitive equipment. That did not happen. And my celebrity death prediction was Luke Montaigne and he's still kicking.

E: As far as we know.

S: So I was one-half for three, if you give me half a credit for the exoplanet one.

R: It's not bad it's better than Nikki.


B: I predicted that the world as we know will end.

S: (laughs)

B: And I have hear, Earth simulation so I think I got that right, I think it did end but we are in a simulation. We just don't know it.

S: It's indistinguishable from the real Earth. Yeah.

B: I also have-

E: Or it's stopped and started again, yeah.

B: -close call with an asteroid that would have killed thousands if it had hit Earth. I don't know, we did have a close call although they happen fairly frequently.

E: A vague, I classify that with hurricane on the East coast, it's that kind of prediction.

S: Yeah, earth quake...

B: So I'm going to take that regardless, I'll still take that as a hit.

E: Oh great, yeah.

B: And I've got here also, about 2011 being the year that astronomers announce the discovery of a whole bunch of Earth-sized exoplanets. And that kind-of happened too. So damn, I'm three for three, wow.

S: Good job.

R: Well done Bob, well done. OK, first up, celebrity death, which as you guys know is my speciality after I totally nailed it on Michael Jackson. I'm going to go with Michael Douglas this year. I don't know why, it just came to me in a dream.

E: He survived a big bout with cancer last year.

R: Uh yeah.

E: He was very sick.

R: And I think we should mention that we do the celebrity death thing and all of these psychic predictions to show how easy it can be to make predictions, to make a bunch of predictions and have one or two come true that you can then trump up.

S: Right.

R: So yeah, that's one, number two of three. Number two is that there will be an Arrested Development movie.

S: Arrested Development movie?

R: Very exciting, I saw it in my head, I saw it happening, it's going to happen. I'm pretty sure. And number three is that scientists will discover that chimpanzees do something that everyone thought only humans do.

S: (laughs)

B: (laughs)

R: Those are my predictions.

J: I have my predictions from last year. I said that, I predicted Nelson Mandela was going to die, and he did not. And I also predicted that there was going to be an amazingly vague cancer cure, which, that apparently did not take place either.

R: Oh, too bad.

J: But I do predict that both of those things will happen some day.

R: Some day.

E: Oh, some day.

J: OK, here are my predictions for 2012. I predict that none of our predictions that we say on this show this year will come true.

B: (laughs)

E: Oh I like that Jay, that's a good one.

R: Oh, ouch, ouch. Playing against the house.

E: Betting against, yeah.

R: That's not cool.

S: One prediction that I'm going to make for 2012 and that was that big foot will sweep into the White House.


J: Big foot!

S: And his running mate will be a gray alien.

R: Oooh. So Nessie gets left out in the cold, huh?

S: Yeah, Nessie doesn't make it past the primaries.


E: David Icke believes- is right with you on that, Steve.

R: But he thinks a lizard is already in the White House.

S: (laughs) Right.

R: That's the difference.

E: Yeah, it's an alien lizard.

J: So Obama is a black lizard in the white house?

E: A blizzard.

R: Yeah, he's a blizzard.


J: He's a blizzard?


J: I want a quickie with Bob!

R: Oh my god.

S: All right, all right, let's give Jay his quickie. Bob, do it.

R: But can I just say, you wouldn't say a white lizard, lizards aren't black or white, they're green, Jay.

E: It's called a wizard!


R: A wizard or a blizzard, OK.


J: A wizard of a blizzard.

E: You want a blizzard or the wizard?

J: What's up about wizard?

R: A wizard would make it also like a racist white lizard.

E: Oh.

Quickie with Bob: Lost world discovered around Antarctic vents (19:45)[edit]

S: Bob, the quickie has been called for.

B: Thank you Jay, I'll be gentle and quick.

R: (laughs)

B: Wait, that didn't come out right?

E: That's what you said, yeah.

B: today had an article, the title was Lost World Discovered Around Antarctic Vents. This was really cool. The sea floor near Antarctica was recently found to be teeming with whole communities of new species. They found things like sea stars, barnacles, sea anemones and yeti crab, also known as the big foot crab - I jest. My favourite find though was an octopus but unfortunately the best that they can say about it is that it's probably new to science, but they're not quite sure yet, so I hope it is brand new. Now these creatures live deep in the ocean near hydrothermal vents and black smokers, which spew out hot water and chemicals into the water which can be near 382 degrees Celsius at times, wow that is incredibly hot.

E: That's hot.

B: So as you might expect, they do not rely on photosynthesis in any way, since light doesn't reach them at all. I also suppose that the corpses of dead fish and small organisms don't rain down on them in any significant numbers because if they did eat them then they would indirectly be photosynthetic based creatures. So they're therefore chemosynthetic creatures, relying on the chemicals around them, probably mostly produced by the vents, to nourish themselves. And I just thought that was a really cool article that people would be interested in. Go to and I'm sure many other science news outlets if you want more details.

S: Thanks, Bob.

R: Good job, Bob.

E: Wow!

B: Thank you.

R: That was good but we need to have a buzzer to cut Bob of at a minute.

B: (laughs)

R: Like the one in my bedroom.

News items continued[edit]

Psychic Predictions 2011 (continued) (21:24)[edit]

S: All right, well let's wrap up the predictions segment as well. We will post the rest of our predictions for 2012 on the Rogues Gallery blog. So take a look for them there. That will also serve to document the predictions so that we can check how we did at the end of the year.

Hacker Satellite System (21:40)[edit]

BBC news: Hackers plan space satellites to combat censorship

S: Jay, you are going to talk about a satellite system that hackers are planning to put into orbit.

J: Imagine if hackers were resourceful enough to put their own communication satellite into space as part of a ground stations and low orbit satellite network. That's what is, that's like the plan that's being discussed and was recently talked about at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. On 12/27 of 2011, so a couple of weeks ago at this conference they were talking about this interesting idea. The idea here is to create a network where people can communicate unregulated and unrestricted by the government, which of course if you're paying attention you'd know that the increasing threat of internet censorship, efforts like SOPA, Stop Online Piracy Act which was introduced in October 2011, things like that have inspired and motivated the people behind the project. Real quick, SOPA is basically a pending bill that's going to be passed, and proposes that sites who infringe on copyrights can be taken offline. Which would give the government an amazing amount of power to just knock websites off the internet. Which I personally amazingly disagree with. I think that would be a horrible mistake and could have massively negative consequences online and apparently I'm not the only one that thinks this way because a lot of hackers are actually getting together and starting to talk about the idea of creating their own network, their own communication network that falls out of bounds of government. So the idea, and the project that they came up with is called Hackerspace Global Grid, because it would require a grid of ground stations to track and communicate with the satellites. The project is being described as like a global grass-roots space program, partly because they want to create a new network for people to communicate, which like I said would require satellites, it would require a lot of ground base stations and everything and obviously the technology, it wouldn't be as robust as things we have today but it would be a way to communicate unrestricted by the government. They also have plans that are lofty, which some of the ideas I heard that they come up with, wanting to put a man on the moon, and send people into outer space and things like that, but I think the initial idea here is just to create this network that can be uncensored. And I think it's a really interesting idea, I would love to see them get some traction just at the very least to see what the government would do about it to see if there was any big negative reaction, would people take it as a threat, like what would be the government of the global government's reaction to such a thing? But I'm not too sure that this thing is that possible from a financial standpoint. What do you think Bob?

B: Yeah, I mean that's my knee-jerk reaction is that it's just so prohibitively expensive to actually get anything into space. One way that they're actually been able to do that though is to actually piggy-back these small devices onto other rockets that were going up and launching conventional satellites. I think some astronauts in the space station, I think they were Russian astronauts who were actually able to, I think they actually went out and launched a couple of things from the space station. So if they have, I mean if you could do that, then that's great. But of course, that's extremely limiting as well. Because you're not, low earth orbit, by definition, it's not geosynchronous. You're not going to have a satellite that appears to be overhead 24/7, it's going to be orbiting every 90 minutes. So, sure you could have some satellites doing that, but you're not going to have created, you're not going to create a network, an internet, that you can use like the conventional internet. I mean you'll be able to send data in bursts because that satellite is going to be out of view very quickly so from that point of view it would be very difficult to actually replace the internet. Now I found a really interesting quote from professor Alan Woodward from the computing department of the University of Surrey, he said that "That's not to say they can't be used for communications but obviously only for the relatively brief periods... It's difficult to see how such satellites could be used as a viable communications grid other than in bursts, even if there were a significant number in your constellation." So it would be difficult, now of course this technology is changing very quickly and improving very fast. I think eventually we'll reach a time where people that are relatively unsophisticated and not with a lot of money will be able launch satellites like that, although the regulations I think would be pretty incredible.

S: Yeah, I like this idea, again we use the term hackers but it kind of can have a negative connotation if you're not familiar with it, but it really is just people who are interested in free communication and open-sourcing computer software and also in security and they're often so-called like white hackers that are actually involved in helping companies protect their computers and their infrastructure and these hackers are mainly interested in not allowing the government to censor or restrict or limit internet communication and that is definitely a goal that I completely agree with, I think it would, the internet has been such a boon to human communication and to the flow of data, it would be a shame if any government decided to interfere with that in my opinion.

Testing Violins (27:11)[edit]

Neurologica: Testing Violins

S: Another interesting news item this past week, a study was published looking at expert violinists, this is like violin players who are professionals and very good at their craft who in fact owned, many of them, extremely expensive violins, some of them Stradivarius, like the most famous maker of violins and also Guarneri which is perhaps the second-most prestigious or famous historical Italian violin. And also some modern violins, although like high-end thirty thousand dollar violins. And they did an interesting study, they had these violinists play these violins blindfolded and then decide, try to decide which one did they like the best, and which violin did they think was the Stradivarius and how do you think they did?

R: I think they failed-

E: Chance.

R: -just like in every other study that attempts to deduce quality from a blinded group of people.

B: I'm going to say that, I think that they were fairly accurate.

S: Uh, good thing this isn't the science or fiction Bob, because they failed. This was with 17 professional violinists.

B: I knew it.

E: (laughs)

S: They played blindfolded two Stradivarius, one Guarneri and three modern violins. They were literally blinded, meaning they were blindfolded, and they could not tell the difference. Three were able to correctly state which one was the Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly and seven said they couldn't tell.

E: Had they ever held these violins before? I was curious about this you know, maybe a professional player could feel a difference between the violins and therefore help their guess as opposed to just relying on sound.

S: Well each of them, the way I read the article was that they were their violins, at least some of them because there's not that many Stradivarius violins around, can we borrow your violin for a study and then they also became one of the violinists in the study. The deeper question here is people believe they can tell the difference between different violins. Now of course these were all very high-quality violins, the modern violins were still 30,000 dollar violins, they weren't cheapo violins, I don't think anybody would say you can't tell the difference, or professional violinists couldn't tell the difference between a 300 dollar violin and a 30,000 violin. There is definite, real differences in material and quality of construction etc. that would make a huge difference. But the question is, is there a difference between a 30,000 dollar modern violin and a million-dollar Stradivarius. Was there some secret that, to the construction of violins, the materials used or whatever, that Stradivarius had or was it just, is there something to the fact that the violins have aged for so long. Does the wood become richer or something when it ages? But in fact, there may not be a difference. A well constructed modern violin may be just as good as a Stradivarius. So it makes you wonder about, as Rebecca said, whenever these kinds of studies are done, it always seems that blinded perception really is very, very poor and a lot of things that people believe to be true like telling very expensive wine from cheap wine or bottled water from tap water or, in this case, famous Stradivarius violins from modern equivalents, it turns out that you can't tell the difference when blinded, that the perceived difference is therefore, I mean you know, when not blinded you say yes, I hear a difference or I taste a difference or whatever and then when blinded you can't tell the difference then it was simply expectation and bias that was creating the perception in the first place.

R: There was also a really interesting study that goes along the same theme that came out of Princeton a couple of years ago wherein musicians auditioned for spots in the orchestras and the people doing the auditions, the people judging them were actually blinded, the musicians played behind a screen, and then they played in front of the judges, and they found that women tended to get hired at a much higher rate when the judges were blinded. The judges were just expecting the women to do worse than, according to the researchers, that sort of led them to actually hear them doing worse. So, yeah expectations can definitely influence the way that our senses, the way that we think that our senses are reacting.

E: The example that I had thought about was the monster audio cables tests. And, for those who have been following forums at the JREF for many years and so forth, you know there's been a lot of back and forth about these cables, these five thousand dollar audio cables.

R: Oh, monster cable, yeah.

E: Right, versus thirty dollar really just average cables. And you cannot, can't tell the difference when properly blinded. You cannot tell the difference between the two.

J: I think it's a little surprising though, that we're basically saying that the human ear can't hear subtleties in things like that, in this regard. And I'm a little surprised to hear that, I mean I can understand if you have a room filled with a hundred thousand dollar, incredibly awesome violins that there's probably not, the reason why they're thought to be so good is that they share a lot of qualities and there are details involved with that that probably make those instruments sound really good and there's maybe a lot of similarities in a lot of that stuff. I bet that they could tell the difference between a mediocre violin and a high-end violin.

S: Well again, remember that here we're talking about, we're comparing high end violins to other high end violins. It's not as if they couldn't hear the difference between, yeah again, a cheapo violin and a 30,000 dollar violin. That is not what this is showing. I did find another study that showed, this one was looking at wine tasting and they did a very interesting thing, they gave people wine to taste, blinded to what the wine actually was, and then, in one group they made some negative comments about the quality of the wine prior to them tasting it, in the second group, they made the same comments after they tasted it. So the question was, is the negative commentary biasing the reporting of what the wine taster tasted, or was it biasing their experience of what they tasted, that's what they were trying to control for there. And it found that for those tasters who were exposed to the negative information prior to tasting, that they reported a much, a lower, poorer quality taste to the wine, and that those who were exposed after they tasted it, didn't, there was no effect from the negative commentary. So that suggests, again it's one study etc. but if it's true it suggests that the negative commentary was not just biasing the reporting about what they experienced, it was actually biasing their experience itself. It altered their experience. And this relates to a comment that you made on a previous episode Rebecca when this came up that while you can actually justify the price of more expensive wine because it makes people enjoy it more even though it's purely psychological, and that study actually supported that interpretation, that it affects the experience.

R: Yeah and I think that study was the same one, I might be wrong here but I'm pretty sure it's the same one where they found that taking white wine and coloring it red made people drinking it describe the wine using typically red terms.

S: Nope, that was a different study.

R: Things like berry-flavoured. Was it a different one? OK.

S: Yeah, that study actually was looking at something specific, and that was the association of what we see with the words that we use, that's really what they were studying there, so they were trying to control for the wine by using white wine so they said OK, well the tasters will not be describing what they're actually tasting because we're giving them white wine but they will use red words to describe the red wine even though it's just be dyed red. That's what they were demonstrating. So it still had the effect of showing how easily we can be fooled. Our perceptions can be fooled by what we think we're experiencing. And also it showed how we alter what we experience with one sense based upon what our other senses are experiencing. That our brain actually compares that, our brains will actually take into consideration what our other senses are experiencing and then adjust what one sense is experiencing to make it all make sense and fit together. I am drinking red wine therefore I am going to experience the flavor of red wine. And it actually alters what you taste, not just biasing your reporting.

R: Particularly with our language choices, I think a lot of people don't realise how much our, whatever language you speak, that can seriously affect the way you experience the world. If you, I mean the old incorrect standby is that the Inuit have a million words for snow, but it is true that different cultures, different languages use different words and that can seriously impact the way you experience things.

S: Absolutely, interesting study.

J: Actually, it's scary to think about how much our perception is untrustworthy.

S: Mmhmm. But it is, and then just like with, you pay more for wine, you have a better experience. Some people argue that holding a Stradivarius has an effect on a violinist and they may actually play better when they're playing a Stradivarius.

E: Like a placebo effect?

S: Yeah, there's like a placebo effect to it, and maybe there's something to be said for that in terms of you're squeezing a better performance out of a certain performer. I don't know if that's true, that's sort of a hand-waving explanation, but there are those who claim that.

Who's That Noisy? (38:01)[edit]

S: All right, Evan. We have to...

E: Yup.

S: We need to do a Who's That Noisy, but going back two weeks because we skipped the holiday week?

E: Yeah, couple weeks we got to go back, back, back, back to episode, what was it 336 I believe it was, so many episodes, so much time has passed but let me queue it up here and play Who's That Noisy?

The sky is, um, indeed black, when viewed from the Moon, as it is when viewed from uh, cislunar space, the space between the Earth and the Moon.

S: So who was that noisy?

E: Neil Armstrong.

S: Neil Armstrong.

J: Cool.

E: Man on the moon numero uno himself. Who did not give many interviews, I mean in proportion to his fame and accomplishment, he was kind of a reserved person, especially after he was done with his time with the space program, he went into teaching actually, amongst other activities. He served on the panels that investigated other space disasters, Apollo 13 and the Challenger shuttle in '86. But he basically retreated into a life of teaching and he was perused relentlessly by political parties, right? Everybody wanted him basically on their political team and he refused and refused and refused some more and refused some more. So since 1994 Armstrong has refused all requests for autographs. He's found that his signed items are selling for large amounts of money and he's like I'm done with that, no one else is going to get rich off of him that way. So he's a little reclusive in that sense but still just such a tremendous, important person in world history.

S: And who won, who got that first?

E: Well, Trinoc was the first to...

J: No.

E: uh write in and guess, yeah. Yeah he was. And he gave people about an hour or so before.

S: He's actually tying one hand behind his back and still getting it correct.

E: He is, he's giving people a chance. So we have a new twist for 2012 Who's That Noisy, folks.

S: And what's that?

E: What we have here is, I'm going to play for you a couple of blips of noise, just little tiny, really quick audio clips. The idea here is to guess the theme of exactly what these blips of noise have in common.

S: OK.

E: All right, so it's fine if you want to guess exactly what you're hearing and on top of it, but the idea here is to come up with the theme I'm going for with the Who's That Noisy. I think this is going to be a fun and different twist on Who's That Noisy, for at least, well going forward in 2012.

S: Yeah.

E: I'm going to try to mix things up a bit in this regard. And this is one way I'm going to be doing this so, let me go ahead, queue that up and play for you the first Who's That Noisy of 2012.

Male voice: The mother was talking about...
Female voice: Well what empowered parents...
Male voice: Mental regression into diseases...

E: All right, you got that?

S: That was quick, you've got to be quick.

E: OK, they were all distinct, but there is a theme. So, give it your best guess, sign on to our forums at or if you'd want instead,, give us your answer there, and as always, good luck.

S: OK, thanks Evan. Well, let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Martin Rundkvist (41:36)[edit]

Neurologica: Electromagnetic Sensitivity in Sweden


S: We are joined now by Martin Rundkvist. Martin, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

M: Thank you Steve.

S: And Martin is the chairman of the Swedish Skeptics Society and also the author of the popular Aardvarchaeology science blog. He was on our show once before (see episode 147), and you are back on as the first interview of 2012 to tell us about a specific issue that's been happening in Sweden, can you tell us about that?

M: Yeah, this is about electromagnetic hypersensitivity. We just announced our annual reward and anti-reward. The reward went to the best science show for kids on Swedish TV, it's been going on for 16 years but that's not what we're talking about today, it's the EHS, the hypersensitivity thing. We've got people in Sweden, and I know there are people in other countries, that believe that their symptoms, which can be pretty debilitating, are due to electromagnetic fields, specifically cell phone radiation and radio emissions.

S: Yeah, so they think that they can sense electromagnetic fields, and that it causes them biological symptoms: headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue.

M: Yeah, even tinnitus.

S: Tinnitus, ringing in the ears, yeah. Although those symptoms are all what we call "non-specific" symptoms, they could be symptoms of anything really, of many different things, it's not a specific syndrome, or does not point in the direction of a specific process or disease. So they are commonly related to either, just dubious syndromes or syndromes that are really more psychological or, maybe due to some chronic illness, just not what people think it is.

M: Exactly, the thing to remember about this is these people really are suffering and you can sort of make fun of them, they're not making this up just to hassle society. But their idea about the cause of it is unsubstantiated. When you do provocation tests, giving them a wire and telling them it's live or it's not live, then they can't really tell. Their symptoms will sort of vary with what they believe about the wire but not with what the wire's physical characteristics are.

S: Yeah, so under blinded condition, they can't demonstrate that it's a real phenomenon, essentially.

M: Exactly. So what happened in Sweden was that in the municipalities of Mora and Orsa in central Sweden which is sort of a scenic and famous part of the country, the Dalecarlia, there was this guy who, he bought a property out in the woods because he thought that he needed to get away from electromagnetic fields because he had these pretty severe symptoms of EHS, he believed he was hypersensitive to this stuff. So in 2006 he wrote a letter to the Board for the Environment in the municipality and he told them that 'I've got these problems, I need you to help me establish a low-radiation zone around my house', and the Board for the Environment never stopped to check whether his assessment of the reason for his symptoms was sort of medically accepted or plausible, they just sort of chalked it down, oh right this guy has this trouble with electromagnetic fields, we need to do something about this. So the Board for the Environment has been spending the past five years writing to cell phone operators trying to get some sort of case going in the EU court, the European Union's court, and this thing culminated this past Autumn when they actually tried to pretty much turn off cell phones, radio and TV in half of this county for the benefit of the guy with the medical problem. All the while, they haven't even checked the Wikipedia entry for EHS, which states plainly in the first couple of sentences, these people have a problem, it's not due to electromagnetic fields.

S: So yeah there's multiple layers to this issue, as you said the first one is: is this guy's medical claims correct? Are they plausible? Does this syndrome even exist? I mean the World Health Organisation and other scientists have reviewed the literature, there was actually published 25,000 relevant articles that was reviewed by the World Health Organisation. So you can't say this hasn't been studied. And they concluded that there is no evidence of any biological effect here. They've obviously utterly failed at that level. But even, let's say this guy did have some sensitivity, I still find it amazing that they would justify shutting down cell phone operations in a broad area. I mean how many people live in this area, what are we talking about?

M: Hundreds of thousands of people.

S: Hundreds of thousands of people would be affected.

M: Oh, yeah.

S: For one guy.

M: It's also an area where people do a lot of travelling in winter time and imagine the number of people who would just freeze to death if they couldn't call somebody when they run into a snow drift with their car.

S: This would actually kill people, this law if they got their way.

M: Oh certainly, but looking at it from a slightly longer time perspective this is nothing new. Researchers in the field, they talk about technostress, that over the decades the same symptoms are ascribed to different new technologies.

S: Yeah.

M: So when I was a kid we used to have a thing called oral galvanism, do you know what that is?

S: Um, oral galvanism. Sounds like some metal.

M: Yeah, it was sort of the precursor to the mercury scare.

S: Ah.

M: People with tooth, dental amalgams, they believed that they had some sort of weird galvanic element thing going on in their mouths which also gave all these weird diffuse symptoms, and about the same time people had something called the computer-screen illness.

S: Yeah.

M: Which likewise no longer exists because these people, or today's sufferers have moved on to a new technology that wasn't around at the time. And this goes all the way back to the 1830s when the goose quill was replaced by the steel nib pin which cased technostress and people with diffuse symptoms when they had to switch to the new weird pen which made them ill.

J: So the actual, the idea of the pen made them ill.

S: No, I don't think so, Jay. I think what happens is there's always this background of people who have these symptoms. Because they're non-specific symptoms that could be due to many chronic conditions. Poor sleep, depression, maybe even chronic low-level infection, or whatever. Just being under a lot of stress. And they seek for various diagnoses to explain their symptoms and over the years, over the centuries there's been this shifting number of diagnoses, technostress is one category, but that's not even the whole picture, there's also over the years people ascribed it to something called neurasthenia which doesn't even really mean anything to syphilis, now to chronic lime disease, multiple chemical sensitivity, sick building syndrome, candida hypersensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome. Some of these may, like chronic fatigue syndrome may actually exist but I think the vast majority who sort of cling to that diagnosis don't have anything definable as chronic fatigue syndrome. And this is the same list of symptoms over and over again. Just with a shifting diagnosis.

M: Well it is important to remember that we're not giving our anti-award to the sufferers, but we're giving it to the Board for the Environment in Mora and Orsa. And when this case got into the news this past Autumn another really sad case came on line, journalists found them. Another family that had moved into the woods to get away from radiation and they still had these symptoms despite the fact that they were living out in the sticks and they were insulating their house with tin foil and wearing tin foil hats and suits and you know. They still had these symptoms and they, after a while they realised what the problem was. It turned out that there were wolves in the woods and they were wearing radio tracking devices.

S: Yeah.

M: So they believed that radioactive wolves were sort of walking up to their house during the night and emitting radio waves and then walking off again.

S: Yeah, but that kind of throws the whole dose-response notion out the window. If the slightest dose like transient encounters with wolves with tracking devices is enough to produce the full syndrome.

M: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. And Sweden only has like 100 wolves or something and none of them were in the area at the time so it was just sort of a way to keep your idea despite having done something about it already.

S: Right, right.

M: So yeah it's hard to help these people but the Board for the Environment shouldn't have let this poor guy believe for five years that they were sort of on his case for him and doing what he needed. He could have been in therapy five years ago.

S: Exactly. I think the biggest thing you have to remember here, because the people who claim or believe they have a syndrome, they're the victims in all of this. They have symptoms for some reason and they are not being well-served by these pseudo-experts or crank-experts who are promoting these notions, you know promoting the notion of electromagnetic sensitivity and it gives them something to latch onto and then they become invested in that idea, their beliefs then get reinforced by the people with letters after their name saying that this is all true, and of course if they get taken seriously by government agencies or government organisations, that again lends more credibility and it just becomes harder and harder and harder to convince them that they're barking up the wrong tree and it's all a huge massive distraction from whatever is really going on.

M: So that's what we're doing in Sweden at the moment, talking to the media about electromagnetic hypersensitivity and getting hate from people who think that we have no compassion.

S: Well yes, that's where I was going earlier with the notion that, they try to take the compassionate high ground. The people who are either claiming to have the syndrome or are promoting the notion of a specific syndrome like electromagnetic sensitivity. But really they don't have the compassionate high ground because it's not like we're saying this isn't really, you're not really having symptoms and we don't care about your quality of life. We're saying we don't want you to be distracted by something that's not true. The truth is what you need, you need to know what's really going on, whatever that is, and not be distracted by this false diagnosis. That's where the compassion is. But I think that's the case you've really got to make to the media. Otherwise, I think the default position is for the media to portray the people who are defending these dubious syndromes as the compassionate healers and the skeptics as the villain. That's the default story. Have you run into that at all?

M: Yeah, to some extent and also I think it's a question of people having a pretty low opinion of mental illness. They'll be perfectly happy to have something physical but if somebody suggests that maybe there's something you need to do which is between your ears, then they will be offended. Because nobody wants to be seen as nuts.

S: Yeah there's a stigma attached to saying that these are symptoms of for example depression. So sometimes people are just looking for something else because they want to avoid that stigma, exactly. Now I heard, because I blogged about this and one of the commenters said that politicians who are higher up the pecking order essentially flat out said there's not going to be any radiation free zone, so they shot down that idea. Is that true? Can you confirm that.

M: Yeah the county administration realised that their Board for the Environment had sort of gone...

S: Gone rogue?

M: Gone rogue, that's the word. They'll be on your show in no time. But no, I don't think there will be any curtailment of the infrastructure up there. But still, there's been a lot of publicity around this thing and just the way the've handled this without, they've been saying things in the media like, well you know we googled this thing and we read some forum posts.


S: Oh boy, forum posts.

M: That's where they got their info on the issue. But of course the Board for the Environment needs to handle a lot of pretty intricate things, I mean it's everything from industrial pollution to the noise level around motorways so yeah, sure they can slip up every now and then but doing it so bull-headedly for five years is pretty unique I think.

E: Well, Martin have you had any dealings with the politicians at all? And spoken with them directly and helped steer them on the correct course over this case?

M: Uh, no not until this thing sort of was broken by the media two months ago. So I was on the radio the other day along with the chairman of the board, the Board for the Environment, but apart from that, no I haven't. This is not a very populous part of the country, so we don't usually know much about what they're doing up there, certainly not what their Board for the Environment is doing.

S: Was the chairman of that board still defending their position?

M: Well, yeah he was sort of slightly backing off but he was saying basically that yeah we're getting a lot of support from people writing in to tell us that we're on the right track here and we're pretty proud of sticking our chin out and taking this on. Well, yeah. Maybe still you should have talked to somebody who was into the real science, the real medical research on the issue? So I'm pretty sure they're going to backtrack as fast as they can now.

S: Yeah.

M: But meanwhile we've got a lot of pretty good skeptical conferences coming on in Europe which might be interesting to you and your listeners, can I give you a short run-through?

S: Yeah yeah, tell us about them.

B: Yeah, go ahead

M: Yeah, so the first one is in neighbouring Norway in February from the 17th of February until the 19th, it's the Critical Mass conference which is really good I've been there once. That's February. And then in May it's Berlin, it's the World Skeptics Conference, a really big one 18th-29th May.

R: I'm going to be at that.

M: Yeah, you should definitely come because that even goes to the colonies doesn't it, when it's global.

R: Yeah.

M: The World Skeptics Conference.

R: Well I'm going to be speaking at it so I kind of have to be there.

M: Oh excellent, I'll buy you dinner.

R: All right, deal.

M: Very good, cool.

E: Blood sausage, awesome.

M: Yeah, yeah no. In Germany it's the curry sausage.

R: Vegetarian curry sausage even.

M: Oh and next year in 2013, the Swedish Skeptics are hosting the European Skeptics convention. So I hope we'll see you there then.

S: Great. Well, Martin thanks so much for joining us and updating us on this issue. We appreciate it.

M: Oh, the pleasure is mine, thank you.

S: All right Martin, take care.

M: Bye guys.

S: Thanks again.

R: Thanks Martin.

B: Thank you.

J: Thanks for staying up, Martin.

E: Yep.

Science or Fiction (58:37)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Are you guys ready for the first Science or Fiction of 2012?

J: I'm very excited about this one.

R: Yeah.

E: I've got a perfect record.

J: Yeah, that's why, Evan! I needed 2011 to die, to just rot away.

E: Oh come on, I was just below you, so how do you think I feel?

J: All right Evan, this is it, this is our year to shine.

E: You and me, we are unseating them.

J: All right, let's hold hands.

S: OK, here we go. Item number one: Study of butterfly mimics finds that Heliconius species are often tricked into mating with mimic species. Item number two: A new thorough examination of poisonous frogs finds that their color accurately signals their poisonousness to birds. And item number three: A scientist has described a case of a fish mimicking an octopus that in turn was mimicking another fish. Rebecca, as the reigning champion of 2011, if you don't count me that is, you get to go first.

R: OK, a fish mimicking an octopus mimicking another fish. So the fish wasn't just mimicking another fish, but for some reason it decided to mimic an octopus masquerading as the fish. That's beautiful, I love nature. I'm going to go ahead and say that one's true. Um, butterfly mimics. The Heliconius species are often tricked into mating with mimic species. Yeah, I can see that. I've seen all kinds of animals mating with other animals that they think are the correct things to mate with. I've seen ducks mating with dead ducks. Animals are not intelligent.

E: erugh.

R: In fact I'm going to go so far as to say that a lot of animals are stupid. So that one seems perfectly true. Which leaves us with the idea that poisonous frogs accurately convey their poisonousness to birds through color. That's weird. I know that poison dart frogs are the really brightly colored, cool looking frogs. But why just to birds? Why not to anybody? That one seems like it should be true, it seems like an obvious thing, that color is often used in nature to mean danger, stay away. But maybe in this thorough examination they found something different. Maybe they found that non-poisonous frogs use color to trick birds. Maybe they found that some poisonous frog species had dull colors. So I'm going to go ahead and say that one's the fiction.

S: OK, by the way there is a theme in case you hadn't noticed it. The theme of course is animal coloration and mimicry.

R: Thanks for spelling that one out.

S: Thank you, just pointing that out in case it wasn't obvious. Bob, you're next.

B: I've seen the octopus that can mimic other fish and it is truly amazing. Google that, I forget what kind of octopus it is, but it is...

J: Bob, you can't say that.

B: I already did. But yeah, but Jay, this is fish mimicking an octopus that's mimicking other fish, so that's the twist here. Yeah, I mean I wouldn't put that past fish to be able to do that, I mean it's not like the fish is like chuckling, thinking like hah, how ironic is this? It's just mimicking an octopus and that octopus just happens in turn to be mimicking other fish. So yeah, I don't have much of a problem with that. The poisonous frog one, though, yeah that does seem clear that the reason why these animals are brightly colored is so that the other animals know, so yeah maybe it's too obvious but I think I'm going to go with that one and say that that one is science. The first one though, the butterfly mimic, I wasn't aware that other animals had sex with other mimics and maybe because of that, if that's true maybe I shouldn't even be picking this one. I just don't see the utility of a mimic tricking another species into mating with it, just for maybe, except maybe for the sheer pleasure of it, I mean what's the real advantage there, what's the goal, why would that be selected for? So because of that, I'm going to say that that one is fiction.

S: OK, Jay.

J: All right Steve, I'm trying to really turn over a new leaf here.

S: OK.

J: But I'm not quite clear on what the one about the butterflies means.

S: So you're aware that there are butterfly mimics.

J: Yes, there are insects that pretend to be butterflies.

S: No, there are butterflies that pretend to be other butterflies.

J: I am not aware of that.

S: There are non-poisonous butterflies that pretend to be poisonous butterflies.

J: OK, that makes sense.

S: So that they won't get eaten. And they do such a good job of mimicking the poisonous butterflies, according to this item, that sometimes they trick those poisonous butterflies into mating with them.

J: Wow.

R: Today I learned that there are poisonous butterflies. Terrifying.

J: So at some point a non-poisonous butterfly faked it so well that they get sexed up by a poisonous butterfly.

S: That's what they're saying.

J: And of course their reaction is like, aaaargh you're poisonous, right? No?

S: No they're poisonous to prey. If you eat them, if you're a bird and you eat the butterfly it's poisonous, so you...

J: OK, so that's a double win for the fakers, because the're like, sure I could see that, that makes sense. I could see how that goes. And then we've got the one here about the poisonous frogs that are communicating to birds telling them I am poisonous do not eat me. I don't know, that one seems strange to me I don't know how that communication, like of course it had to evolve, where they know somehow. Yeah, but why would you say that they're communicating to the birds, isn't it like the birds figured it out to stay away from them?

S: I'll let you work out the evolutionary aspect of it for yourself.

J: And then the third one, see Evan, I'm already screwing this up.

E: Uh oh, here we go.

J: I'm already off track. All right, so finally in the third one there, the one about the fish mimicking mimicking the fish, see I actually think it's a fish mimicking an octopus mimicking a fish that was mimicking a shark. I think that's the actual news item.

R: Probably yeah.

B: Crickets, crickets.

J: Thank you

R: (laughs)

J: Alright, so I'm going to, I wouldn't put it past an octopus to get mixed up with a couple of crazy fish so that one I'll just take, OK that one's science, say. OK I'm just saying that that one is science. The second one here though about the poisonous frogs and the birds, I don't know.

S: Yes.

J: OK I've made my decision, Steve.


J: I like the idea of the butterflies that are so good at faking it out that they actually get to have sex with the butterflies they're trying to be. My only question left is do they fake orgasms with the other butterflies?

R: How would that be evolutionarily advantageous to them? It only means more terrible sex in the future, never fake an orgasm. Butterflies, no.

S: That's true, Rebecca if you fake an organism you're giving the inappropriate feedback for bad performance.

R: Exactly, I never understood why any one would do that.

S: So what do you do, do you like give a raspberry or do you boo?


R: Yeah I have a big buzzer over the bed and I actually...

B: Thumbs up, thumbs down.

E: Check your watch, right? Look around the room.

J: Oh my god, is Adam's like buzzer system he made for your game, is that by the bed? And you're like "nooooo".[link needed]


R: Hey, it helps. You know, whatever.

E: You done yet?

J: All right, I'm going to say the poisonous frogs are not communicating to the birds.

S: OK, Evan.

E: Yeah, I'm going to agree with Jay and Rebecca on this one. My thought being that birds, we know that birds have extra cones and rods in their eyes so they see things very differently than we do. So we perceive these frogs as certain colors to us but to the birds it's probably an entirely different set of colors and that therefore does not accurately signal their poisonousness to the birds, so that's my thoughts behind that and that's why I'm choosing that.

S: So you all agree that a scientist has described a case of a fish mimicking an octopus that in turn was mimicking another fish because it is just too cool not to be true.

R: It's a fishtopus.

S: It's a fishtopus. And that one is... science.

B: Good.

J: Cool.

R: Hooray.

E: Yep, terducken, yeah.

S: The octopus, Thaumoctopus Mimicus.

E: Thaumoctopus.

R: Thaumoctopus, that's a good name.

E: That sounds like a Marvel superhero.

R: Yeah. (laughs)

S: Yeah, I know, I'm Thaumoctopus!

E: (laughs)

S: The Thaumoctopus often mimics flat fish because they are poisonous. They contort their tentacles in just the right way to mimic the shape of the fish and then they undulate along the bottom of the ocean the same way that the flat fish does. So it's a very convincing mimic and you should see pictures of it, it's very cool. Well a diver has observed, a scientist who was diving I should say, a jaw fish who was swimming along with the octopus and was mimicking the coloration and the movement of the flat fish through the octopus.

B: That's cool.

S: So he was sort of hiding with the octopus, so he was sort of hiding in the, with the octopus, like saying I'm just another flat fish along here with this octopus. So two mimics, neither of which were actually the flat fish.

B: Now Steve, these octopuses or octopi, I mean they actually, you didn't really stress it, they actually not only can mimic body shapes but coloration as well.

S: Oh yeah, yeah they change their coloration yeah.

B: Yeah, the cool thing about that is that it's not really like chameleons because chameleons, their skin changes, it's a chemical reaction so it takes time, it's not going to be an instant or a very quick change, whereas because this octopus can change its coloration, I think the skin colors are like linked to the neurons of the brain, so it's actually controlled by the brain directly.

S: Yeah, and it's very rapid, yeah.

B: It's really fast and one cool thing I saw them doing once was actually, it could like undulate the colors of its skin back and forth, back and forth so that if you're chasing this octopus it's like an illusion, where you're like, wait, where? You know it's very hard to gage distance when the colors are going back and forth, back and forth, it's so cool.

S: Yeah, it's distorting, yeah disorienting. This is a case of opportunistic mimicry and it's believed to be the first observed such case. Very cool. Now, and items one and two, I will first tell you that one of you is right for the wrong reason and another one of you is wrong for the right reason.

R: too.

B: Wow, awesome.

E: Um. Confused, OK.

B: I love when that happens.

S: Let's go to number one. A study of butterfly mimics finds that Heliconius species are often tricked into mating with mimic species, Bob you're alone in thinking this one is fiction. The rest of you think that this one is science, and this one is... the fiction.

B: Yay.

R: Bah.

E: Ah, crapola.

R: Good job, Bob.

B: 100%, I'm not doing any more science or fiction for the rest of the year.

S: (laughs)

R: It's for the wrong reasons though, so...

S: Yes so your reasoning was off, you said what would be the advantage to the species, but that you're being hyper-adaptationalist in that reasoning.

B: I like being hyper-adaptationalist.

S: The idea was that the mimic species is mimicking the Heliconius just so that it won't get eaten and that as a side effect to that, it does the mimicry so well that it tricks the Heliconius species into mating with it, but not that there would have to be or that there was any selective pressure or advantage to that trickery. But in fact what the study showed was the exact opposite, that despite the fact that there are certain species that do an excellent job of mimicking the Heliconius, they never seem to trick the Heliconius into mating with it, so what scientists discovered is that the Heliconius species actually evolved a combination of coloring in the ultraviolet spectrum and the ability to see in that spectrum. So they broadened the spectrum in which they can see visible light-

B: Wow

S: -and they have coloration in that spectrum so it's a secret visual signal that they could send each other that the other species don't have and don't see. So they have no problem telling themselves apart from mimic species because they have these bright markings that are invisible to the mimic species. Isn't that cool?

B: Wow, that is really interesting.

J: That is really cool.

S: So let's go on to number two. A new thorough examination of poisonous frogs finds that their color accurately signals their poisonousness to birds, and that one is science. So you could kind of go both ways on this and think that there is a tight relationship between the coloration of frogs and how poisonous they are or maybe there isn't such a tight relationship, maybe there are lots of mimics in there that are taking advantage of the poisonous of other brightly colored frogs and they're diluting out the sample. But the examination found that, the interesting thing here is that the scientists were able to examine the coloration of the frogs using the visual systems of different types of animals. So in other words, what do the frogs look like to birds versus to snakes, versus to some other kind of animal. Snakes cannot detect the poisonousness of frogs at all, of these types of frogs. That in fact there's no correlation or little to no correlation when the frogs were analysed from the visual system of snakes. But when they looked at it using the visual system of birds, they found that there was a very tight, consistent correlation between how poisonous a frog was and how brightly, vividly colored it was. So it wasn't just black or white either. It was the more vividly colored they were, the more poisonous they were. So the thinking is that the bird predators are just presenting a dominant evolutionary pressure to these poisonous frog species, so much more than say snakes that the frogs, the selective pressures are dominated by the bird predation and not affected by the snake predation.

J: That evolution is so blazingly cool. It always blinds my mind how quirky and weird, and then it makes sense, though, you know?

S: Yeah, yeah it does.

J: So Steve, you should not lick colorful frogs, right? Did I hear that?

S: That's right. So Evan you were wrong for the right reason in that you hit upon the notion that birds do have a different visual system and that is playing a role but it was just in the opposite direction from what you were assuming.

E: Eh, you know I just went the other way with it.

S: It's enabling them to see how poisonous the frogs were.

R: I say we give him the point. And we take it away from Bob.


E: Ooh.

R: Yeah.

B: Not going to do that.

R: It's the show your work rule of 2012.

S: (laughing) show your work.

E: That is true, in geometry we had to always write out our proofs right?

R: Yeah, negative marks if you just write down the answer.

S: Nice try.

B: And Steve, don't ever call me hyper adaptationalist again.

S: (laughs) Well don't be one.

B: OK.

S: Um, all right, thanks for playing this week guys. Off to a good start Bob, off to a good start.

E: Yeah, very good Bob.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:48)[edit]

S: Jay do you have a quote for us?

J: All right Steve I'm starting out with a very skeptical quote for 2012. Do you know who David Suzuki is?

S: Yeah, he's that Japanese Canadian environmentalist.

J: Exactly, wow.

R: Wow, good job Steve, nailed it.

B: Didn't he do a science show?

J: Didn't he make motorcycles?

S: Or that was his brother, Johnny Suzuki.


J: "Education has failed in a very serious way to convey the most important lesson science can teach: skepticism." (very far away) David Suzuki!


E: That's awesome, what a great quote.

S: Good job finding that quote, Jay.

J: Thank you.

S: Well thank you for joining me for the first SGU episode of 2012.

E: Here we go! It's great.

R: Thank you, Steve.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Voiceover: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast the SGU 5x5 as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions and other feedback please use the contact us form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune or your portal of choice.


  1. Galileo (1632) Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Wikipedia entry)

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